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December 29, 2012SAN FRANCISCO -- Throughout the holiday week leading up to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, meteorologists forecasted rainy skies above AT&T Park on the northeast shore of the San Francisco peninsula.
During Arizona State's midseason four-game losing streak, a dark and gloomy afternoon probably would've been a fitting note for the team to end its year on.
But just how the Sun Devils flipped their fortunes around to finish their regular season strong, the skies opened up, leaving behind nothing but a perfect day for ASU to play a perfect game.
There was no raining on the Sun Devils' parade, not Saturday. From junior defensive tackle Will Sutton collecting his Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award before kickoff from Pat Tillman's father, to the offense scoring touchdowns on its first nine possessions, to junior running back Marion Grice earning the game's offensive MVP days after his brother's death, nothing detracted from the Sun Devils' moment in the sun.
Turning in nothing short of an overpowering performance, ASU (8-5) throttled Navy (8-5) on Saturday, 62-28, in front of 34,172 fans to capture its first bowl victory since 2005.
"I'm really proud of our guys and how they came together like a family," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We are about honor, discipline and character. These guys have come an awful long way. Our guys came prepared today and dominated and I'm really proud of them."
Even though ASU sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly combined for five touchdowns Saturday, the offensive spotlight after the game turned onto Grice. Playing with a heavy heart after his brother was gunned down in Texas last week, the running back rushed for 159 yards and two scores.
"We were concerned about how well he would be able to play and he played unbelievably well," Graham said. "He has a lot of brothers here to support him and that love him."
Upon receiving his individual trophy at the conclusion of the game, Grice couldn't contain his emotions on stage. Kelly said Grice had been trying to hold it in for the game.
"He was having a hard time," Kelly said. "But he's all in for this program and he wanted to come out and play for his brother."
Aside from Grice and his family, at the top of everyone's mind when the clock hit triple zeroes Saturday was if Sutton had just played his final game in a Sun Devil uniform. The consensus All-American faces a fast-approaching decision if he wants to return for his senior collegiate season or test the waters in the NFL Draft.
"At the end of the day he has to do what's best for him," Graham said. "But I can tell you right now what's best for the team. It's his decision though and he'll make it in his time. I'm hopeful he will be back."
If Saturday was indeed Sutton's last game at ASU, he certainly went out with a bang. In the process of taking home the bowl's defensive MVP trophy, Sutton recorded 3.5 tackles for loss including 2.5 sacks. Amid all the hype and uncertainly about his future, the junior said he has been able to stay relatively focused on the task at hand.
"Not difficult at all, it's how I was raised," Sutton said. "I'm going to stay humble. I like the attention but sometimes it gets annoying when you just want to relax. It comes with the territory though."
As for the game itself, the Sun Devils rewrote most of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl record book with their offensive outburst. While scoring the most points in program and team history, ASU also broke game records for the largest margin of victory (34), touchdowns (9), rushing yards (380), net yards (648) and first downs (36, which also tied the NCAA record).
"We were confident in the system we've used for a while," Graham said. "We've scored points all year long and we knew as long as we didn't turn over the ball or have stupid penalties, we felt confident we would play well and score a lot of points."
Putting the final touches on his improbable first season at the helm of the offense, Kelly was at the center of the majority of the offense Saturday. Completing 17-of-19 attempts for 268 yards and four touchdowns, Kelly ended his sophomore campaign with a 67.1 completion percentage, the highest in school history, to go along with 3,040 yards passing and 29 touchdowns.
He also ran for 81 yards and a score Saturday, even averaging more yards per carry than Grice.
"We've got a great quarterback," Graham said. "It's team first (with him). I've never doubted that. That's why we are bowl champions today and why we'll compete for a conference championship. I appreciate Taylor and his leadership."
Four of Kelly's passes against Navy went to junior tight end Chris Coyle, who broke the ASU single season record for catches by a tight end with 57. Former Sun Devil and current Seattle Seahawk Zach Miller was at the top of the list beforehand.
"Chris is a great athlete," Kelly said. "He did a great job this season and he has another year to beat that and break some more records."
Also benefitting from Kelly, ASU senior wide out Rashad Ross bounced back in a big way Saturday after a shaky Territorial Cup game in Tucson. In his last game as a Sun Devil, Ross caught four balls for 139 yards and three scores, easily making his performance the best of his career.
"The good thing about what happened was the time off (in preparation for the bowl game)," Ross said. "Me and Taylor threw a lot and our timing got just right. It showed during the game."
More than a month after that emotional rivalry victory over Arizona to cap off its regular season, ASU didn't show any signs of rust out of the gate Saturday.
Instead, the Sun Devils took the opening kick and methodically marched the ball 75 yards in eight plays for a tone-setting touchdown capped off by a 16 yard reception by Ross.
"We have a system that we've been doing for a while for how to win bowl games," Graham said. "We felt very confident in it. Our focus was winning this game and preparing."
ASU added two more scores in the first quarter, a 10-yard run from Grice and a 1-yard keeper from Taylor, to jump ahead 21-0 before Navy finally got on the board on a 3-yard pass from Keelan Reynolds to Matt Aiken.
That was as close as the Midshipmen would get though. The Sun Devils held Navy to 350 total yards, most of which came with the outcome already decided and the starters on the bench.
"It was a very physical game and we have a physical defense," Graham said. "It was probably the best game that we had."
As ASU held Navy's triple-option in check, ASU junior wide out Alonzo Agwuenu extended the Sun Devil lead midway through the second quarter when he caught a wide-open pass in the back of the endzone after Navy bit hard on a play-action run up the middle.
Already ahead by 21, Ross turned in the next two ASU touchdowns, both on perfectly thrown deep passes from Kelly, leading his wide out to scores of 52 and 50 yards and putting the Sun Devils up by 34.
"He had some fresh legs under him not playing for a month," Kelly said. "He did a great job beating guys over the top and separating.
That, however, was just the beginning for the Sun Devil offense and the ensuing rout. ASU tacked on three more touchdowns in the second half, two from senior running back Cameron Marshall and one by Grice, to leave the scoreboard flashing a 62 in the home column.
"He has been one of the most incredible players that I've been around," Graham said of Marshall. "The coaching change didn't help him that much, we recruited two guys that he had to share carries with but he never complained."
With the win, ASU ended its season on a three-game winning streak including victories over UA and in a bowl for the first time since 1978. Graham hopes that momentum carries over into next season, when he won't be the new face on campus anymore.
"There's no doubt that this will propel us into the offseason," he said. "The first thing we talked about in the locker room was the foundation that these seniors have laid. We've got a great core coming back next year, and I'm excited for the future."